Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Thank You to Teachers to Start the Year

My daughter came home from kindergarten exhausted the other day. She was worn out in a way that she hadn't been worn out from her pre-kindergarten experiences. We've also had a couple of episodes where she has not wanted to go to school in the morning this week. She felt the same way at the end of last summer, so I know at least part of this is just making the adjustment from summer to school. That said, the episodes prompted me to ask her how things were going, and whether she was enjoying her first year of school. Her response amused me, but also tugged at my heart. She threw up her hands in frustration, rolled back her eyes dramatically and said, "It's just all about learning." 

Now, I understand that the move from pre-school to kindergarten (or any school transition) can be challenging and can prompt this kind of reaction from anyone who finds themselves outside of their comfort zones. I've watched my other daughter struggle with the move from 7th to 8th grade this year, for example. I also know that attitudes can quickly change as familiarity sets in. And I certainly trust my youngest's kindergarten teacher to make learning exciting and engaging.

My only concern comes from my daughter's equating learning with frustration. One of the greatest challenges that I think we face as educators is helping students to find the short term joy in learning when they are feeling uncomfortable. Another challenge is helping them to reach the feeling of long-term pride in learning (that can only come through continuous effort, reflection and growth) before they lose the willingness to keep pushing themselves toward a reward they don't know is there, particularly if the direction of that learning falls outside of their interests.

I often claim that learning is fun, and that if students aren't displaying signs of fun, they aren't likely to be learning very well. This comes from a great deal of personal reflection, classroom experience, and observation. But I also recognize that we all have low moments in which the learning curve we are facing causes us to associate our stress with learning generally instead of with the specific learning experience we are struggling through. In these cases, I believe that our self-reported frustration with learning comes from our natural aversion to risk and our distrust of the unfamiliar. I've seen examples of this in learners of all ages, including the adult learners I work with now.

In those moments, the effective teacher is the guide who reminds the learner of their previous knowledge, assures the learner that the risk they face isn't too great, and convinces the learner of their ability to succeed. Most importantly, the effective teacher designs learning that feels safe, that inspires wonder and curiosity, and that taps into student interest. The function of a teacher is to design learning experiences for each student that are challenging but not daunting, new but not scary, and fun but not without purpose.

It's a tall order, and none of us do it perfectly. We fail and try again. We correct our course and then correct again the next day, trying to triangulate on the particular alchemy that will lead to the joy of learning that happens much more easily in informal settings. There are days when all of this seems easy, when we see what kids need and we provide it. On those days, we feel like super heroes. There are other days when all of this seems so complicated and impossible that we want to quit, to throw up our arms and roll back our eyes in frustration.

When that happens, what keeps us coming back? A mentor who can show us that we have what we need to turn failure into success. A friend to remind us of the joy we felt the last time we overcame a challenge. A colleague to help us find a more engaging way to look at the problem. Maybe just someone to remind us why the work matters and to affirm the successes we've had.

That's what teachers do. I know that is what my daughter's teacher is doing for each child in that kindergarten class. She is finding a way to make learning seem easy, despite how hard it really is. I'm grateful for all of the teachers who have done the same for my kids at every level of their educations. I also realize that there are days when my students' teachers haven't been my child's super hero. On those occasions, I'm grateful that their teachers came back to try again.

To me, that is what we mean when we describe a teacher a lead learner. They are taking risks despite the uncertainties they face. They are constantly seeking to improve their skills and the experiences they design. They are reflecting on their successes and their failures and using those reflections to guide their practice. They are constantly looking for (and creating) reasons to celebrate the process of learning. In short, they are modeling for students the joyous work of authentic learning.

We won't all be super heroes today, but we can all strive to be. Thank you for making that effort to help any learner get past their fears and enjoy school. As a parent, I see the evidence of your influence when my daughter who didn't want to go back to school in the morning returns home excited to tell me about her day in the afternoon. Seriously, thank you.

photo credit: Jeffpro57 via photopin cc